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  • Melissa Morgan-Oakes

Eastern Screech Owl: Master of Disguise

The sun has just said a final goodbye with a promise to return in the morning. As you make your way along the peaceful forest periphery, an unusual sound catches your attention - a trilling whinny seems to emanate from a nearby oak tree. You look toward the sound, but see nothing, only a broken branch jutting out next to a hole in the tree’s trunk. But wait. Is that a branch? A pair of bright yellow eyes slowly open in your direction - and the “branch" is revealed to be a small owl, ear tufts erect and no bigger than a pint glass. Spreading its wings, it drops from the tree, glides briefly down, then beats its wings against the evening air to rise up and disappear into the forest.

This Eastern Screech Owl has just given you a very rare glimpse into the secretive world that it inhabits. Although common throughout our area, these stealthy predators are rarely seen by most of us - if you have trees around you, you likely have owls! Like most owls, this bird hunts primarily after dusk, perching ten feet or so in a tree and waiting for prey to make their presence known below, then gliding to earth to end a mouse’s evening forage abruptly. Although most of their diet consists of small mammals, earthworms, tadpoles and even small fish are also a likely treat. The Eastern Screech Owl is a generalist when it comes to mealtime, and will even grab a bat or insect on the wing should they be available.

Hunting after the sun has set means that this animal relies heavily on exceptional nighttime vision and superb hearing. Although those ear tufts can stand tall on their heads when they are alert, they have nothing to do with hearing. Their two ears are actually located at the upper perimeter of the birds’ facial disk. These tufts are specialized bunches of feathers that can be raised and lowered at will to help the bird blend in with the bark of the trees they live in.

Mating pairs of this owl will establish a territory, and will remain with one partner for life unless fate or nature intervene. They occasionally will take a second mate should the first not perform as expected, with the second partner forcing the first off of a nest if need be. Their territory may have multiple nesting sites, although only one is used each year. Like most of our native owls, they do not build or dig a nest hole for themselves, but use holes created in trees by woodpeckers, or nests abandoned by squirrels.

A very adaptable bird, they take readily to nest boxes when they are made available. In fact, the suburban screech owl will likely have a longer life than their rural cousins. To encourage the presence of these rodent eaters in your area, consider placing species appropriate nest boxes in spaces with open understory, and keep your land wooded if possible - screech owls cannot survive in the wild without trees! There are many plans for such nest boxes available online - those from for example make a fun weekend project. Place nest boxes in winter for best results - most owls begin their house hunting in January or February, with the little screech laying eggs around mid-March. Having those houses in place well ahead of their nest selection time increases the likelihood that they will choose you as their preferred landlord.

Although the oldest Eastern Screech Owl recorded in the wild was 14 years of age, they are not likely to live longer than five to seven years. In captivity they fare better, and it is common for them to reach the age of 13 years.

Here at SVNHM we have two of these delightful predators living with us each representing a different color pattern, or morph. Soren, our gray morph Eastern Screech Owl, has been with us since 2018. After a stint in raptor rehab, it was determined that Soren could not survive in the wild due to an injury to his left eye. Cedar, our rufous (red) morph screech owl, is one of our more recent arrivals - she came to us in the early spring of 2020. Cedar suffered from an injury to her right wing that makes flight impossible - you may also note during your visit that her right ear tuft doesn’t stand quite as far up as the left. Cedar was found on a lawn under a tree in 2019. A third, intermediate brown color morph is also occasionally seen.

Stop by the museum soon to experience these extraordinary animals in person!



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